Study Guide

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Director

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J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams was born in 1966, making him 11 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out. Yeah, they got him young.

The son of two prominent producers, he always had Hollywood in his blood, and apparently one iconic science fiction franchise just wasn't enough for him: having directed the first two films in the Star Trek reboot, he switched gears to join that galaxy far, far away.

We can't say we're unhappy with the decision.

The Man Wears Many Hats

Directing came slowly to Abrams, who started out writing and producing before really rolling up his sleeves behind the camera. He gained early success by writing the screenplays for movies like Taking Care of Business and Regarding Henry. (That last one also starred Harrison Ford.)

His directing opportunities first came in television, where he co-created the drama Felicity, which made a star out of Keri Russell. The success of that begat the spy series Alias, which made a star out of Jennifer Garner, and then Lost, which made a star out of…a lot of people.

Those last two series had a lot of science fiction elements, making them big draws for fanboys and giving Abrams street cred in that department. He took that with him when he turned his eye to directing feature films. His first was Mission: Impossible III, which set up his (sinister?) plan of hopping onto existing franchises and adding his own touch to them.

From there, Abrams jumped onto Star Trek, helming the impressive 2009 reboot and its somewhat less impressive 2013 sequel. In between, he found the time for Super 8, which is basically the greatest Steven Spielberg movie that Steven Spielberg didn't direct.

Feeling What Lucas Is All About

All of that on his resume means that he had spent years soaking in the kind of pop culture vibes that created the original Star Wars. And his work on Star Trek and Mission: Impossible showed that he could handle existing movie properties the right way.

When George Lucas turned Star Wars over to Disney in 2012, he apparently handpicked Abrams for the gig. (Source)

As a filmmaker, Abrams has a distinct visual style as well as recurring themes that he likes to touch on. They work very well for the Star Wars universe, which again is probably why he scored the job.

He likes to take a "you are there" approach to filmmaking, which means a fair amount of shaky cams, weird angles, unexpected zooms, and an infamous lens flare fetish that's become something of an internet joke. (Source)

All of that is intended to convey a sense of being on the ground with the blaster fights: it's like he went out and filmed an actual battle between actual starship fleets, instead of just assembling it all on a computer somewhere.

And that's in keeping with how Star Wars was put together. One of the things that made A New Hope such a phenomenon was the fact that Lucas made space all grungy. Before then, science fiction films were always antiseptic and clean, as if the future was full of cybernetic supermaids cleaning up everyone's messes.

Star Wars was dirty, dusty, and had mold growing in the corner. The spaceships seemed to be held together by chicken wire and string. Stuff broke down, a lot, and had to be spackled together just to stay running. (Can you even count how often the Millennium Falconjust refuses to work?)

That grunge had no place in sci-fi movies before Star Wars, and Abrams' filmmaking techniques made sure The Force Awakens has the same feeling right from the get-go.

See J.J. Go

To see it all come together, take a look at Rey and Finn's escape from Jakku in the Falcon. Rey first calls the ship "garbage" (matching Luke Skywalker's initial impression of the ship in A New Hope).

When they get aboard, they're kind of hanging on for dear life: rough takeoff, skidding through the planet's junk heap, making stuff work basically by slamming the controls as hard as they can. If you've ever driven an old car, you can relate to what these guys are going through (though no TIE fighters were trying to destroy you).

Now, look at how Abrams shoots it. The first shot in the clip comes from a static camera. It doesn't change its position; it just follows the characters as they run…just like a documentary filmmaker would do if he were shooting a scene in actual combat. The next shot is shaky and unsteady: running ahead of the characters and kind of bobbing and weaving along with them. It's frantic and spontaneous, like Abrams got caught by surprise by the action and is just trying to keep up.

Abrams made this seat-of-your-pants feel part of his directing style. When you add that to his ability to pop into the middle of a franchise and make it his own without overturning the whole apple cart, it's no surprise that he stepped into this movie like he was made for it.

After all, in a lot of ways, he was.

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